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How BBC Online’s Cuts Can Push It Into the 21st Century

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There’s plenty of heat being generated today by the announcement that the BBC’s online division will be shedding 360 jobs, slashing its budget by 25 percent and shuttering large portions of its online presence. From the outside, it looks like a rout, with one of the world’s most powerful and well-respected broadcasters wildly hacking away to cut costs in the face of the UK government’s aggressive intervention. In Britain, the announcement has largely been ignored by those who oppose the idea of a publicly-funded broadcaster (a group that consists primarily of the BBC’s political and commercial rivals), while greeted with dismay by those who support it.

It’s not hard to see why this black-and-white reaction is so common; the BBC’s been at the center of a political tug of war for years, but things have really stepped up since the arrival of a new Conservative-led coalition government. But detach yourself from the political melee, and there’s a strong argument that — while it’s clearly not great for the people directly affected — this round of cuts could actually be the spark that sends the BBC’s online presence to the next level.

What do I mean? Well, there’s no doubt that the BBC is one of the world’s premier broadcasters. It manages a network of global news reporters that’s seen as one of the most authoritative on the planet, and produces some high-quality output that’s at the top of the field. But it’s also hobbled by its relationship with government, its size (any large institution struggles with bureaucracy) and a legacy web presence that consists of thousands of disconnected parts. (Full disclosure: I work irregularly but frequently for the BBC as a journalist)

When you think about what these BBC cuts mean, it’s worth noting a few things. This round of reduction isn’t, in fact, entirely new; the corporation was told its budgets would be falling in October, after it had already announced last year that it was planning to lop 25 percent of the budget and shelve a range of “top level” parts of its website. The BBC’s website is also probably much larger than people realize. Most viewers interact with a few areas: news, sport, weather, local information. But there’s so much more: hundreds of programmes have their own websites, often manually updated by staff squirreled away inside corporation buildings around the UK.

And then there’s the fact that the BBC has often succeeded online in spite of itself. It’s big and often unwieldy, but it has a market penetration that few rivals can match, either in its home market or internationally. A significant portion of BBC web output is boosted simply because it’s from the BBC, not because of its innate quality. When services are genuinely good, the public latches on. And those successful areas are largely unaffected by these cuts: the details announced today have barely any impact on BBC News, or the organization’s journalistic operations; they also don’t really hurt the corporation’s biggest success story of recent years, the iPlayer on-demand video streaming service.

And, perhaps perversely, they actually open up the door for some progress to be made elsewhere – just witness the news that the corporation will be investigating more social features such as commenting and improvement of blogs (something that puts its somewhat anachronistic success into context, as Mathew said on Twitter: “What year is it again?”). Plus, there’s the fact that BBC staff will now be gaining full control of the hugely important World Service and there’s the glimmer of hope: the chance to make it a real global player, not an arm of government encumbered by its legacy.

In the short term, this is a political battle lost by the BBC’s overseers — but in the long term, if it is played right, it could turn into a small victory: the chance for the BBC to make serious progress, cast off its shackles and prove its doubters wrong by becoming a truly 21st century organization.

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3 Responses to “How BBC Online’s Cuts Can Push It Into the 21st Century”

  1. On top of the comments above, which I broadly agree with, I’d have to say that you must be one of the few people I’ve heard celebrating the fact that the BBC is now lumbered with paying for, as well as running, the World Service. It will mean death by a thousand cuts, and, arguably, make it more liable to political lobbying than before.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      Thanks for the responses, both. It’s tough, but I’m trying to look on the bright side. I do think the BBC will gain from autonomy over the world service — at least it will be able to guard it against further political intervention. that will obviously come at a price, but senior executives have already said they’ll work to put back money the govt is taking out right now.

  2. Bobbie, in a sane world, I think you’d be right. However, nothing in these cuts addresses the real issue which will stymie potential BBC innovation: The Byzantine and frankly insane market-impact system that any significant BBC project has to go through.

    For those not familiar with the rules which bind the BBC, any significant BBC project has to go through two tests: A “public value” test, which is designed to see if it’s of broad value to the license fee-paying public; and a market impact assessement, which is designed to ensure that the BBC’s sheer bulk doesn’t distort things too much in any market it enters.

    You can probably see what the problem might be: Any big project which is likely to offer enough significant value to the broader public to pass the public value test is quite likely to be seen as distorting the market and thus fail the market impact assessment.

    Throw in a set of commercial competitors – and we’re not just talking Murdoch here, but also the likes of GMG and Trinity Mirror – who will claim that *any* significant new BBC project is something that they’re just about to launch Real Soon Now (honest, guv), and what you have is a recipe for stagnation. A fine example of this was local video, which the BBC wanted to launch two years ago, but which was stymied by complaints from local radio companies which claimed they were poised to enter the very same market. This, of course, hasn’t happened – as soon as the BBC was forced to withdraw its plans, those local video services mysteriously disappeared.